While the American Catholic conversation continues to obsess itself with politicized commentaries over the Vatican’s mandate for
a reboot of LCWR
and the US bishops’ ongoing
fight for religious liberty
, the most significant story going in the English-speaking church these days comes instead from Ireland, where the country’s chief prelate is facing a fresh round of enraged calls to resign on assertions that he failed to protect children during a decades-old canonical investigation into the Isle’s most infamous predator priest.
A BBC documentary last week reported that, as a priest-notary during a 1974 church probe, the present-day Cardinal Seán Brady was given information on five victims of Brendan Smyth — the Norbertine priest whose staggering trail of abuse would effectively launch the ongoing two-decade torrent of revelations that have illustrated an equally prolific history of covering up allegations on the part of the country’s seniormost churchmen and their aides.
According to an interview with the victim who provided the names and addresses of other Smyth targets, no follow-up was made to four of the five children (boys and girls alike) listed by the man, Brendan Boland, who was 14 when he testified in Brady’s presence.
The TV report said that those listed by Boland or others known by the group would continue to be abused by Smyth into the late 1980s.
For the cardinal-primate of All Ireland, the disclosure has made for the lowest point of a stunning fall. On his 2007 elevation to the College, Brady was hailed by prelates, press and public alike for his humility, “patent sincerity,” “honesty in cleaning up the clerical child sex abuse scandals” and a widely-appreciated role in advancing the Isle’s famously fraught peace process. Such is the radioactive specter Smyth continues to hold in the Irish psyche, however, that to be painted as even an unwitting enabler of the notorious pedophile increasingly seems a blow from which the low-key cardinal will prove unable to recover.
To be sure, the effect is not unique to leaders of a beleaguered, battered Irish church. In 1994, when the Republic’s attorney general was found to have blocked a request from Northern Ireland for Smyth’s extradition there to face a criminal proceeding, public anger erupted with an intensity that forced the collapse of the government.
Never laicized, the Norbertine “monster” (right, being taken to court) died in prison three years later, shortly after being sentenced to 12 years for pleading guilty to the abuse of 20 boys and girls.
A combination of charges from the North and Republic, the indictment stretched for another 71 counts.
Smyth also abused American children during assignments in Rhode Island and North Dakota in the 1960s. After the case erupted three decades later, his abbot admitted in a televised interview that neither US bishop where he was sent was warned about the cleric’s “propensity to molest.”
In an extensive response to the documentary’s claims, the 72 year-old cardinal said last week that he “was shocked, appalled and outraged when I first discovered in the mid 1990’s that Brendan Smyth had gone on to abuse others.”
Brady voiced his frustration about media coverage that gave “the impression that I was the only person who knew of the allegations against Brendan Smyth at that time and that because of the office I hold in the church today I somehow had the power to stop Brendan Smyth in 1975. I had absolutely no authority over Brendan Smyth…. The only people who had authority within the church to stop Brendan Smyth from having contact with children were his Abbot… and his Religious Superiors in the Norbertine Order.
“I feel betrayed that those who had the authority in the church to stop Brendan Smyth failed to act on the evidence I gave them,” he added. “However, I also accept that I was part of an unhelpful culture of deference and silence in society, and the church, which thankfully is now a thing of the past.”
After Irish media honed in on Boland’s request for a public apology, Brady complied yesterday before a camera from the state broadcaster RTE during a previously planned pilgrimage to Lough Derg — historically, a site of spiritual refuge “for anyone in trouble.”
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Secretary to his Northern bishop at the time of the Smyth investigation, the Cavan-born Brady went on to become rector of Rome’s Irish College and, in 1996, primate of All Ireland on his ascent as archbishop of Armagh — the seat whose lineage is traced to St Patrick himself. In the post, he likewise serves as chairman of the unified conference of bishops from the North and the Republic.
Brady’s tie to the Smyth case encited controversy when his role as a canonical notary first emerged in early 2010, without the fresh aspect of the additional victims he learned about. The mere disclosure that, in recording their experiences, the future cardinal swore the teenage victims to secrecy — a standard procedure to maintain the integrity of canonical proceedings — made for enough grist in the court of public opinion to foster perceptions that he abetted a cover-up.
At the time, the cardinal said he would “reflect carefully” on his position, but asked if a “new beginning” for the church would “allow for wounded healers, those who have made mistakes in their past to have a part in shaping the future?”
In the wake of the initial imbroglio, Brady said openly that he had requested “episcopal assistance” from Rome — a statement widely interpreted as a request for a coadjutor who would succeed him.
To date, an appointment of the sort remains pending, but some reports over recent days say the move could be expedited to allow for an “exit strategy.”
In a marked change from the earlier outbreak, Pope Benedict’s choice of a designated successor to the primate would be advised upon by a veteran close collaborator of the pontiff’s: Archbishop Charles Brown, the New York native and longtime CDF aide who was tapped as Nuncio to Dublin last November, then ordained by Benedict himself on Epiphany Day in a relatively rare move, as an unmistakable signal of the Pope’s closeness and trust.
Educated at Oxford and Notre Dame but without a day’s experience in diplomacy before being sent to the posting on Navan Road, the savvy, urbane theologian was dispatched in large part to end a decades-long tradition of Italian appointees who were routinely sidelined and dominated by the Irish bishops. (As one Curialist recently put it, under Brown’s predecessors the most significant business at the Dublin Nunciature “was that the pasta arrived from Italy.”)
Likely to oversee a significant upcoming consolidation of the 26 Irish dioceses — which, between them, comprise some 4 million Catholics (yet amid rapidly plummeting contingents of priests) — it was telling that, as opposed to Brady or the capital’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Brown took the celebrant’s duties for a nationally-televised Mass on Sunday in preparation for next month’s International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.
In a seeming reference to the divisions born of the abuse scandals writ large and the Brady controversy’s return to the headlines, Brown pointedly said in his homily that “the unity of the church does not come cheap. All of us need to pray for that unity and at times also to suffer for it.”
As the new Nuncio delivered his message from the RTE studios, after a parish Mass elsewhere in the city, Martin backed a full state inquiry into the Smyth case, a call that — reflecting the tenuousness of his position — the cardinal-primate subsequently echoed.
A new civil investigation would follow four prior government probes on the history of abuse in Catholic dioceses and institutions, each of which have released damning findings on venues ranging from the residential schools run by religious orders to the Dublin church and the diocese of Cloyne, where Bishop John Magee — once the private secretary to three Popes — was first stripped of his powers by Rome before resigning in disgrace.
On the eve of a Eucharistic Congress that Dublin’s Martin and the Vatican alike envisioned as a jump-start toward the renewal of an Irish church whose challenges make its Stateside daughter seem almost problem-free by comparison, the latest Brady fiasco has all the makings of a considerable embarrassment.
Reflecting an unusually broad spectrum of ecclesial agreement, public prodding for the cardinal’s resignation has ranged from sources as varied as Divine Word Fr Vincent Twomey — a retired moral theology don in Ireland’s national seminary at Maynooth and onetime pupil of Professor Joseph Ratzinger (who, last year, awarded his student the highest papal honor a religious can receive), and the editor of the influential London-based Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, who said in a Thursday tweet that the Irish church’s “agony” would be “far worse if Cardinal Brady fails to quit over latest abuse scandal.”
“Time to go,” Pepinster said.
Further roiling the scene has been the Vatican’s reported “silencing” of at least five prominent Irish priests over their respective commentaries on hot-button issues affecting the church’s life.
While the sanctions imposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith apparently vary in their degree, in the broad sense, anything the men intend to say publicly on questions pertaining to church teaching on homosexuality, the ordination of women and other sensitive matters must be approved by Rome before being made public.